We’ve been staring at the stars for generations, but it wasn’t until 1961 that we managed to start realizing our dream of reaching for them. On April 12 that year, the Russians sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit. Less than a month later, the United States did the same with Alan Shepard. We’ve come a long way since those first flights, but we’ve still got further to go. Where will NASA take us in the next 20 years?
Rovers to Mars
We’re down to one rover on the Red Planet after we lost Opportunity to a massive sandstorm late last year. Curiosity won’t be alone for long, though. Next year, NASA is going to launch a new rover that hasn’t yet been named. Unlike Curiosity, this new rover will have a drill to collect rock samples, as well as other equipment and tools.
NASA isn’t making any significant changes to the rover, other than including the drill. To keep costs down and prevent mission failure, this new rover is based on the same successful designs that kept Opportunity and Curiosity running for so long. This mission is tentatively scheduled for July 2020, when Earth and Mars are closest, to cut down on travel time.
Astronauts to the Moon
In a recent announcement, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the presidential administration is committed to seeing humans back on the moon by 2024. The goal is to finish NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) by then. The SLS has been in development for years, making sure the design can successfully reach escape velocity while holding the required equipment and personnel for the mission. When it’s done, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world.
Getting humans back to the moon — something that hasn’t happened since Apollo 17 in 1969 — is no small task, but that isn’t the only plan. NASA also recently just ordered the first piece of its planned Gateway Lunar station that will orbit on the far side of the moon.
Massive Satellite Constellations
SpaceX recently made history by launching 60 Starlink satellites at once on a Falcon 9 rocket, but this is just the beginning. Starlink, once complete, will contain nearly 12,000 satellites, marking the beginning of a new age of the satellite industry. Experts are predicting that the satellite and space market will be worth $1.1 trillion by 2040, as both government contracts and private companies work toward putting satellites in orbit.
New Competition on the Horizon
NASA may have some competition in the next two decades. China and India are both poised to become space superpowers in their own right. China has already taken steps in that direction with the launch of its lunar probe and rover and is planning to explore the possibility of setting up a base in the moon’s southern polar region. It is also planning to send a robotic probe to Mars in 2020.
Commercial space flight is also gaining popularity. SpaceX is a privately owned company, and while it does handle government contracts — including supply runs to and from the International Space Station with its autonomous Dragon capsule — it’s not fully self-sufficient. This might change in the next 20 years, with SpaceX and other commercial spaceflight companies working in competition with NASA instead of alongside them.
The End of the ISS
The International Space Station has been in orbit for nearly 20 years, and while the U.S. is committed to funding the project through 2024, the station’s future is up in the air. There are some plans in the works that could potentially support the station through 2028 or 2030, but this is a 20-year-old space station. The next two decades could mark the end of the ISS.
It is an international project, so the U.S. couldn’t decide to deorbit the station on its own. However, Russia doesn’t have the means or the people to keep running the station by itself.
To 2040 and Beyond
2040 is just the beginning when it comes to human space travel. We may not become an interstellar species in our lifetimes, but the potential is there. We just need to keep moving in the right direction — and in this case, that direction is up.